Even though people and monkeys eat pandan fruit, native Nicobarans feel their products belong to monkeys.
Ishika Ramakrishna didn’t realize that she would spend a lot of time looking at Nicobar’s long-tailed macaques while they were sleeping. Worse yet, they occupied all the cool, shady spots, leaving her exposed to roast in the sun or soak in the rain. She fought to stay awake in the sweltering heat of the day on Great Nicobar Island while noting what each member of the troop was doing every five minutes.
Ramakrishna discovered that macaques followed a feeding etiquette. While one ate a ripe pandan fruit, the others lined up for their turn. A single monkey couldn’t finish the pineapple-like fruit on his own. After having eaten your fill and gone, the next one has taken its place. But on occasion, monkeys weren’t always so polite and could turn violent.
A skirmish broke out between two large males who were screaming and clawing at each other. Other adults joined the fray. Ramakrishna remained motionless. Three women with infants deliberately walked over to the researcher, repeatedly raising their eyebrows and growling. After seeing them threaten other members of their troop in this manner, she heeded their warning and stepped back. Concerned about their babies, they minimized complications that could aggravate the fight.
Most of the time, however, the apes did not react to this human who behaved like any of the others they had encountered. Before studying them, Ramakrishna spent 45 days getting used to them. She followed them through the rainforest and mangroves, in the blazing heat and the pouring rain. It was only when they ignored her that she was able to start her studies. Sometimes she couldn’t help but catch their attention.
One rainy day, they were walking in single file along a fallen log to cross a swamp. She too stepped on the trunk to make it collapse under her weight. She sank into the sticky mud with thousands of thorns from the surrounding canebrake embedded in her clothing and skin. Although the mud held her back, she managed to make her way over solid ground. “All the monkeys were looking at me quietly, transfixed and (I guess) very amused,” Ramakrishna recalls.
Nicobar long-tailed macaques also frequented coconut groves, pandanus gardens and areca nut plantations where they feasted on palm nuts and fruits. At first, Ramakrishna thought that the indigenous Nicobarese people would be annoyed if the monkeys had a field day. But they were more than happy to share. Even though people and monkeys ate pandanus fruit, communities believed that their products belonged to monkeys as well.
Colonists in mainland India cursed primates for being pests and threw stones to drive them away. But they also cooed over the adorable wrinkled-faced baby macaques. Since the apes looked like little humans, residents expected them to behave the same: respect private property and avoid trespassing.
“Everyone has a monkey story, whether in towns, villages or on the boat for the Nicobars,” says Ramakrishna.
Fruit to find
A large male picked up his binoculars one night she had been distracted. Sitting at a distance on a large gravestone in a cemetery, he bit the rubber eyecups into pieces. If the desperate seeker approached, he could run away or climb a tree with it. Soon three monkeys lined up to patiently wait their turn. Ramakrishna took his place as the fourth. When the male couldn’t peel the binoculars like a coconut, he would bang them against a rock, hoping to find something edible inside. The researcher took a deep breath with each stroke, hoping the binoculars would stay in one piece. After the annoyed monkey abandoned him, the next one attempted to break the binoculars. At that time, Ramakrishna had an idea. About 500 yards away was one of the troop’s favorite wild jack trees. She brought her fruits and exchanged them for the binoculars. With the exception of the bite marks and chewed eyecups, the pair of binoculars were miraculously still in good shape.
The researcher also had a story.
Janaki Lenin is not a conservationist, but many creatures share her home for reasons she has yet to find out.